ITAC Meeting Minutes

November 20, 2014


I.        Announcements

Congratulations to Rachel Richesson from the School of Nursing for being elected a Fellow of the American College of Medical Informatics.

II.      Agenda Items

4:05 - 4:30 – Introductory Statistics Update using RStudio and Docker – Mine Cetinkaya-Rundel, Mark McCahill (15 presentation, 10 discussion)

What it is: Introductory Statistics courses are using RStudio, a statistics packaged application for courses this fall. Docker is a relatively new Linux container that provides a lightweight form of virtualization. RStudio is a good fit for Docker because it is a web-based application that provide students with anywhere access to RStudio and enables Shibboleth authentication.

Why it’s relevant: We will demonstrate how this technology has been successfully deployed for Introductory Statistics courses and discuss how these new tools can be effective in the classroom.

About 300 students go through statistics courses each semester that use RStudio on a weekly basis for completing lab work.  Installing and configuring this program for that amount of individual students each semester is a technological challenge.  Each student has a different operating environment and some are not technologically savvy enough to be able to adequately troubleshoot problems on their own.  In addition, it is up to the individual student to save their work.  RStudio has been very generous and had been hosting a server version for Mine.  Some schools use Google Apps but this requires a Google login.  This would be a challenge on the part of the instructors in gathering Google login information at the beginning of the semester and dealing with changes through the 2 week drop/add period.  Gmail and RStudio also work differently in how they deal with a period (.) in the email address used.  Is there a way to allow the students to log into a locally-hosted solution using their NetIDs?

Possible Solutions

  • Setting up an RStudio server instance
    • How big does it need to be?
    • How can it be scaled for the workload needs?
    • Concerns about a large number of students on the same server, potentially affecting one another negatively with poorly written code
  •  Give each student their own VM 
    • The smallest configuration right now is 2 GB of Memory and 2 CPUs, so provisioning 300 VMs each semester would require a lot of backend hardware resources
  • Utilizing Docker containers
    • Lightweight virtualization (share the architecture)
    • Containers can easily be moved around for scaling purposes
    • Backups can be run against the servers automatically
    • Only required 3 VMs with 120 users per system
    • Because it’s containerized, are easily able to move to Google Compute 

Docker solution feedback

  • Overall very positive experience
  • Environment appears the same as it did before, so nothing new to the students
  • No more login issues
  • Instructors have full control over what is installed on these servers (e.g. packages)
  • Program used during labs is the same the students are using at home, so no problems with different environments or OSes
  • Students don’t need to email files to themselves because they can log back into the same system and begin where they left off during lab time
  • Remaining challenge is team accounts for group projects (want to avoid login-sharing, version control issues)

Looking forward:  Running Matlab, Mathematica, and Eclipse IDE within web browsers.  Pilot on a small scale in Spring 2015.

Questions and Comments:

Can the containers be shared in Box?  Possibly.  Or team containers could be created.

Discussion surrounding using Docker containers for the purpose of research reproducibility.

Can you go backwards and restore a container to a previous state?  Currently, no.  We would need to save the old states of the container.

Were students doing any large matrix inversions?  In these classes, no.  The computational load has been pretty low during this testing phase.

Discussion regarding the need/efficacy of physical computer labs for students today.  There is a need  for more collaborative work environments.  Restrictions with software licensing may tether us to computer labs longer than we may want.  There is no current requirement for freshman to bring a laptop, but we’re at about 98%.  Some students dislike lugging them around on campus.  Loaners are a possible solution to these issues and requirements.

4:30 - 4:55 – Advisory Committee for Online Education (ACOE) and Overall Trends in Online Education – Stephen Craig, Lynne O’Brien (15 presentation, 10 discussion)

What it is: The Advisory Committee for Online Education advise the Provost, other administrators, and faculty governance committees on issues related to online education.

Why it’s relevant: We will provide an update on the overall trends in online education and higher education, as well as a summary of the kinds of online education models. We will also discuss the legacy of past activities along with the initiatives planned for the future.

General Trends

  • Courses have moved from being mostly replications of on-campus courses to being re-designed versions of the courses.
  • Starting in January, Coursera will allow courses to be started “on demand” as well as those with a fixed schedule.
  • Modularization of courses (3-4 week courses) with learning paths, capstone courses and completion certificates.
  • Combination of free and paid offerings.
  • Dozens of online learning providers now includes international firms.
  •  Some courses have become an income stream for the schools and others have not.

Duke University

  • Call for proposals for online courses at Duke for 2014-2015[2]
  • Looking for collections of courses that can be combined in a manner that makes sense and increases the educational experience

Questions and Comments:

Is there a difference in approach to the Duke student vs. the global online student?  Open to both possibilities, largely up to the teaching faculty to determine who their audience is.  The lines between each group are blurred and often the courses that have been created so far can serve both groups equally well.

Possible disconnect between what faculty and students get excited about.  Student survey seemed to show a trend that students overall didn’t have a positive impression of the online courses.

Has there been any change in what incoming students are expecting at Duke in terms of online course offerings? No knowledge of students specifically asking about this.

4:55 - 5:15 – HackDuke Follow Up – Ashley Qian (10 presentation, 10 discussion)

What it is: Duke has once again sponsored a 24 hour event to allow students from across the country to write applications and build gadgets. Previously, the Hack-A-Thon challenge resulted in over 100 different projects and we expect as much excitement again this year.

Why it’s relevant: We will provide follow up to our earlier ITAC presentation that summarizes the success of the recent HackDuke event.

There were 550 students from across the nation who attended HackDuke, including some students from Canada.  Some Duke students who had not registered showed up to the kick-off because of the interest in what the event was all about.  A huge pool were first-timers to HackDuke, 60-70% were novices.  This had the benefit of bringing in more females to the event this year.  About 30-40% of mentors and 33% of participants were women.

Sponsors were on-site to discuss opportunities such as part-time jobs, internships, etc.


  • 75 projects in multiple tracks
  • Approximately 20 hacks focused on Health & Wellness
  • Winner of Energy & Environment was a group of all female novice hackers.  Their project was on compost maintenance.
  • Winner of the Health & Wellness track created a first-responder app to connect and notify first-responders within a 1-mile radius.

Questions and Comments:

Is there any mechanism for follow-up with the teams/winners?  Code For Durham (Code for America, Code for Georgia, etc.) and Sponsors are provided with the winners information so that they can continue conversations about their projects.  One group has requested independent study next semester to further develop their project.  Two of the groups are working with Co-Lab.  Code for Durham has mini hack nights were these projects can continue to be worked on further.

Were there any noteworthy projects from Duke students?  The Energy & Environment winners were from Duke, another group created a scanner system for homeless shelters to track donations.